36 fun things to do in California with kids

Last updated on January 4, 2024

Pinecrest Lake CA

We’ve travelled all over California as a family and rate it as one of the world’s best family travel destinations. It’s super easy if you’re just starting to find your feet travelling with kids, plus it has some of the world’s best kid-friendly attractions. From Disney to Hollywood to no end of natural splendour, it’s a wonderland for families, and one of our top picks for a family vacation.

We’ve put together this list of the most fun things to do in California with kids. And we also have lots of individual family travel guides for destinations throughout California, as well as a detailed California road trip guide, and Pacific Coast Highway itinerary.

The most fun things to do in California with kids

Lower McCloud Falls



Would a post about things to do in California with kids be complete without a mention of Disneyland? My dreams came true when I went there as a kid, and then we did the same for Otis and Arlo when they were 3 and 5 (and I’m sure we’ll return again!).

It’s about 45 minutes from downtown L.A. and it requires a bit of planning to get it right. You don’t want to end up with tired, cranky kids all day! This is a handy post on how to get the most out of Disneyland with toddlers and preschoolers. And also see our guide to things to do in Los Angeles with kids and all the coolest places to stay in Los Angeles with kids.

Universal Studios

Universal for toddlers - Simpsons

Universal Studios is a big crowd pleaser for all ages – it’s exciting to be in Hollywood and see the setting for some of your favourite programmes on the studio tour. Plus there are rides and shows for every age, ranging from fun animal actor performances to the thrill-seeking Revenge of the Mummy rollercoaster.

And that’s not even to mention the incredible Wizarding World of Harry Potter. See my guide to visiting Universal Studio with a toddler. It’s a clear must-do when it comes to things to do in California for kids. We recommend getting an express ticket to save time.

San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo

Ever since I first watched Rainbow Brite goes to San Diego Zoo (any other 80s kids out there?!), I dreamt of visiting the 100-acre zoo in real life. That dream came true age 11 and it lived up to all my expectations. It’s still as good today, rated as one of the world’s top zoos and home to around 4,000 animals. It’s one of the top things to do for kids in California.

The SkyFari Aerial Tram is a fun way to get around the 100-acre zoo (and part of the reason I was so keen to go there as a child!). And nowadays they also have the Fisher-Price Discovery Playground where children can interact with farmyard animals. Buy an advance skip-the-line ticket here.

As well as the San Diego Zoo, there’s also the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Even bigger than the former, this one is spread over 1,800 acres and is one of the best kids’ activities in California.

It’s a must-do California attraction for kids. Buy a ticket for the safari park here, or a combined skip-the-line 2-day ticket for the safari park and zoo.

See more in our guide to things to do in San Diego with kids and the coolest kid-friendly San Diego hotels.



The Exploratorium in San Francisco is a brilliant interactive science museum that’ll entertain kids and adults alike. We went with Otis and I’m not sure who loved it most – us or him!

Step inside a tornado, build electrical circuits, and visit the mad scientists’ penny arcade. Skip the ticket line and book your ticket now. It’s a really fun place for kids in California. See more things to do with kids in San Francisco.

Dolphin and whale watching

whale watching, Puerto Madryn

You can see whales off the California coast all year round, including giant blue whales in the summer and autumn, and grey whales in winter and spring. Species that can be seen all year are finback whales, humpbacks and dolphins.

Places that offer whale watching tours include Mendocino, San Francisco, Newport Beach, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Santa Barbara and Laguna Beach. Here’s one you can do from San Diego. Plus a few more from Get Your Guide below.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has been the backdrop to countless cinema scenes. The old-fashioned funfair fronts the beach and features classic rides like a big dipper roller coaster and a spinning carousel.

And don’t forget to try all the typical boardwalk treats, like kettle corn, saltwater taffy and deep-fried Twinkies. It’s the top Santa Cruz attraction.

The boardwalk is open daily from late May to late August, plus most weekends and holidays throughout the year. You can check the opening hours here. During the off-season, the arcades, laser tag, miniature golf and laser tag are still open. See more things to do in Santa Cruz.

Ride a steam train through the redwoods

One of the most unique things to do in California for families is to head to Roaring Camp Railroads in the Santa Cruz mountains where you can take a steam train through the redwoods, offering a perspective like none other.

The 19th-century logging steam train and tracks were originally used to haul giant redwood logs off the mountains. And the 1-hour-15-minute trip takes you up Bear Mountain while the conductor tells the story of Roaring Camp.

You can also catch a steam train from Roaring Camp all the way to the boardwalk during the high season. Read more about Roaring Camp and see the train schedules here

You can do a similar thing in Mendocino County from Fort Bragg on the Pudding Creek Express at the Skunk Railroad

Sea Glass Beach

Glass beach Mendocino

Just 30 minutes from downtown Mendocino is the famous glass beach in Fort Bragg. There seem to be various theories about why the phenomenon has occurred, but either way it’s resulted in a surprising beach made up largely of coloured glass pebbles. It’s a really fun place to take kids in California.

Our boys loved searching for their favourite treasure (although be aware that you’re not supposed to take any glass pebbles away from the beach).

Visit a kid-friendly winery in Sonoma and Napa

What to do in Sonoma County

Visiting a winery with kids might sound like an odd idea, but there are plenty of kid-friendly wineries in California. In Sonoma, we found lots that have lawn games and farm animals on site, and one that even has a playground. See more in our guide to things to do in Sonoma – it’s a surprisingly family-friendly place in California.

In Napa, one of the best options for kids is Castello di Amorosa where kids can taste grape juice while the adults sip wine. They’ll also enjoy the novelty of being in a medieval castle.

Columbia State Historic Park

Panning for gold in Columbia State Historic Park

If you find yourself in Tuolumne’s gold country, make sure to visit Columbia State Historic Park. The perfectly preserved gold rush town offers the chance to experience what it was like to live in the 1850s.

There are historic working businesses, including a blacksmiths, a homemade candy store, a candle shop, and an old-fashioned bowling alley. And there are even docents dressed in 1850-1870 garb.

You can also do horse and carriage rides and pan for gold, which was one of Otis’ highlights of his entire time in California (he found some gold as well as plenty of little gems!).

Avenue of the Giants

Founders Grove, Avenue of the Giants

One of the great joys of California is the redwoods, and our kids have always loved being among them, dwarfed by their size and awed by their presence. While there are many places to see them, one of the best by far is the Avenue of Giants in the Redwoods National Park on the Northern California coast.

The 31-mile route is one of the most beautiful drives we’ve ever done, lined by trees so tall you sometimes can’t see the sky.

There are lots of stops along the way to follow hiking trails. A stop we particularly recommend if you’re with kids is Founders Grove, a short one-mile loop that takes you through some of the most beautiful forest in the area.

There are also two trees you can drive through (Shrine drive-through tree and the drive-through tree park) – but beware bigger cars will struggle – we scraped ours! Kids will love it though.

And there’s also One Log House, a massive log that has been made into a little cabin – be aware that the shop you buy the tickets from is also home to a cannabis dispensary, which I guess could be a good or a bad thing depending on your vibe!

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park, Bumpass Hell

Lassen Volcanic National Park is California’s answer to Yellowstone. It’s filled with geysers, fumaroles and mud springs, and topped by Lassen Peak, the world’s largest volcanic dome.

There are lots of hiking trails, including routes that are suitable for every age from toddler. The very easiest ones are the Devastated Area Interpretative Trail, the Lily Pod Nature Loop and the loop around Manzanita Lake. Other good options include the easily accessible Sulphur Works (where you can see fumaroles from the car park), and the popular Bumpass Hell trail, which is a gentle 3-mile hike that takes you past bubbling mud and turquoise pools.

Manzanita Lake is an ideal place to base yourself with lots of watersports on offer. And also pick up a Junior Ranger booklet where you can do activities within the park and receive a badge once completed.

Most of the park is only accessible in the summer months, from around May. But you can do some guided snow shoeing and cross-country ski tours in winter.

Santa Monica Pier

Los Angeles with kids

Just up the coast from Venice Beach is Santa Monica where you’ll find the famous Santa Monica Pier. It’s home to an iconic ferris wheel and roller coaster, plus lots of other rides and amusement games that kids will love. It’s one of the top places to visit in California with kids.

The Santa Monica beach is also lovely, and there’s a little playground next to the pier for little ones. There’s a small aquarium under the pier, or you could also try the bigger Aquarium of the Pacific.

I put together a guide to the best Airbnbs in Santa Monica, including family-friendly options. It’s an essential place on any Pacific Coast Highway itinerary.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey is perhaps most famous for its world-class aquarium, one of the best in the world and definitely worth a visit. The kelp forest, giant open water tank and jelly fish were my highlights. While there, it’s also a good chance to visit cannery row and fisherman’s wharf. It’s one of the most popular family attractions in California.

Turtle Bay Exploration Park

Turtle Bay Exploration Parlk

If you’re visiting Redding with kids then visiting Turtle Bay Exploration Park is a must. The park combines a cultural and science museum with live animal exhibits, an aquarium and a brilliant outdoor play park. 

Highlights include the bird walk where you can feed colourful lorikeets, and during the summer months, they have an animal show that teaches about the resident animals. 

I particularly loved seeing the grey fox and baby skunk, and for Otis, visiting the park was one of the best days of his life as he got to meet his favourite animal, a racoon! 

Legoland California

Legoland California

LEGOLAND California has all the hallmarks of LEGOLANDS worldwide, including the driving schools where kids get to drive mini cars around and get their special LEGOLAND driving license. It’s one of my own favourite childhood memories and has become a rite of passage for kid around the world.

Other fun activities include vehicle races, programming robots, and a game where you have to join together as a team to put out a fire and stop some thiefs!

There’s also a brilliant LEGOLAND Water Park onsite (open in the summer only), which is a great for all ages, plus the Sea Life Carlsbad Aquarium. It’s a great day out, exploring three of the best kids attractions in San Diego. Buy a combined 2-day ticket for all three here.

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe, straddling California and Nevada, and its surrounding mountains are a perfect place to relax or get active in California. Expect snow sports in the winter and endless water activities in the summer – from SUP to boating to windsurfing. Find some ideas for tours and activities and fun things to do in California from Get Your Guide below.

Stay somewhere quirky

Railroad Inn Dunsmuir

California has some incredibly quirky accommodation that kids will love. We stayed in a converted railway carriage near Mount Shasta at the Railroad Park Resort. And you can even stay in a space-age pod in Joshua Tree. There are also lots of characterful cabins throughout the state.

Raging Waters

Raging Waters

Raging Waters (formerly known as Six Flags Waterworld), is Sacramento’s biggest family waterpark. There are over 25 rides including 20 waterslides, an 800ft lazy river ride and a big wave pool.

There are some huge thrill-seekers’ slides for older kids, as well as the Treehouse Reef, which has water slides for little kids too. And the 2ft shark pool is perfect for little ones.

There’s also a Raging Waters in Los Angeles. And other amazing waterparks in California include: Six Flags Hurricane Harbor in Concord, Aquatica in San Diego, and the Legoland Water Park in Carlsbad.

Crystal Cove State Park

A wonderful place to experience the beauty of Laguna Beach is Crystal Cove State Park, which includes three miles of coastline, sandy beaches and wooded canyons. It’s a good place for hiking, swimming, biking, surfing and scuba diving. And it’s ideal for families in California as the surf is usually gentle and there are lots of tide pools to discover.

We particularly loved the Crystal Cove State Park Historic District, which has a great family-friendly restaurant, The Beachcomber, right on the sand. And they also have cottages you can rent (although these sell out super quickly!). It’s where the film Beaches (one of my faves!) was filmed and you can visit the summer house from the movie there. On our most recent visit, we stayed in nearby San Clemente, which was a nice quiet option in Orange County.

Another great place for tide pools is the beaches of La Jolla in San Diego.

Calico Ghost Town

In the middle of the Mojave Desert is Calico Ghost Town, an old west silver mining town that was abandoned in the mid-1890s after silver lost its value. It’s been a ghost town ever since, but was architecturally restored in the 1950s and made into a popular historical landmark and tourist attraction.

It’s a fun place for kids to explore, plus they have fun additional activities, including panning for gold, a house of optical illusions, an historic train ride, and trails for mountain bikes and off-road vehicles. Buy your tickets here.   

Go to a Children’s Museum

Childrens Museum

If, like us, you’re not from America then you might not be familiar with the wonders that are children’s museums. They’re specifically for younger kids, around 8 and under, and we’ve never been to a bad one yet.

These indoor playgrounds/museums tend to have arts and crafts areas, role play opportunities such as mini supermarkets, and science sections with different experiments to try.

We love them and wish we had more things like it in the UK. Good ones in California include: The Bay Area Discovery Museum in San Francisco, Sacramento’s Children’s Museum, The New Children’s Museum in San Diego, Cayton Children’s Museum in LA, and the Children’s Museum of Sonoma in Santa Rosa.

Six Flags Magic Mountain

I was obsessed by rollercoasters as a child and Six Flags Magic Mountain blew my socks off. It’s the ultimate rollercoaster theme park, with 19 of the fastest roller coasters in the world. While there are some rides for younger kids, the main focus is definitely on rollercoasters, making it an ideal option for thrill-seeking older kids. It’s one of the most fun places for kids in California.

Pinecrest Lake

Pinecrest Lake in the High Sierra has been a popular holiday destination for generations. The setting is spectacular with a crystal blue lake backed by magnificent, granite peaks and edged by pine forest. In the summer, it’s a perfect spot for swimming, boating and hiking. There are boats for hire at the Pinecrest Marina. And fishing is also very popular in the summer months

You could also just relax on the lake’s shore where there are numerous little beaches. The water is nice and shallow at the edge, perfect for little kids.

La Brea Tar Pits

La Brea Tar Pits

The Le Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles takes natural history museums up a notch by incorporating hundreds of Ice Age fossil displays with a genuine tar pit, which you can see bubbling away on your visit.

Excavations are ongoing and you can watch the palaeontologists at work. There’s also the brilliant Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. Both are two of the best kids’ activities in Los Angeles (especially if they’re into science).

Sesame Place San Diego

Sesame Place San Diego

Sesame Place San Diego is one of the newest California attractions for families. It’s the States’ second Sesame Street-themed theme park (the other is in Philadelphia), and features rides and shows from the popular American show.

California State Railroad Museum

The California State Railroad Museum is dedicated to all things trains and has a collection of over 20 restored carriages and engines, as well as exhibits celebrating the railway and life around it.

It’s in Old Sac on the waterfront, and there are also lots of old trains outside the museum that you can explore for free.

The museum also runs historic train rides. Tickets for the train ride are separate to museum entry and you can buy one without the other.  See more things to do in Sacramento with kids.


I tend to think more of beaches than snow when thinking of California, but there are also lots of mountains and opportunities to ski in California. Places with ski resorts include South Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes, Mount Shasta and Olympic Valley.

Explore Yosemite

Yosemite is always a good idea. The most famous parts of the park, such as Half Dome and El Capitan, are centered around the Valley Floor. You can easily see the highlights in a day, but you’ll need longer if you’re keen to delve a little deeper or do some of the longer hikes.

With kids, we recommend driving to Tunnel View for that classic valley view, and doing one of the shorter hikes, for example to lower Yosemite Falls (a really easy one-mile hike suitable for wheelchairs and strollers).

In the high season, you need a pass to enter Yosemite during peak hours, which must be booked in advance.  Find more details and book tickets on the Parks website.

We stayed at Evergreen Lodge, a classic forest resort that’s a dreamland for families. It’s filled with fun things to do for kids of all ages, and is the ideal place to retreat after a day exploring the park, or for a few days of rest in between.

See a baseball game

Sutter Health Park

A quintessential American family experience is going to watch a baseball game, so regardless of whether you’re into sport, we recommend trying to catch a game while you’re in California. See The Giants in San Francisco, The Dodgers in LA, the Sacramento River Cats, or catch a local game in any of the towns you visit in California.

And remember, you don’t have to stay for the whole game (baseball is long!) – it’s more about experiencing the atmosphere, and of course eating a hot dog!

Learn to surf

Things to do in Santa Barbara: Surfing
Santa Barbara, Surfing a big winter swell at Rincon Point on the Pacific Ocean near the cities of Ventura and Santa Barbara in southern California

Is there anything more Californian than heading to the beach and going for a surf? It’s a fun place to learn and there are plenty of schools where you can take lessons.

Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz is well known for being perfect for beginners, and other good options include: Surfrider Beach in Malibu, Mondos Beach in Ventura, and Bolinas, just north of San Francisco.

Joshua Tree

Under the Rocks - Joshua Tree Cabin-2

The whimsical world of Joshua Tree National Park has long attracted hippies and mystics on a quest for the otherworldy. And the landscape of the park is bound to capture kids’ imaginations

Aside from visiting the park, it’s also worth visiting Pioneertown, which was built in the 1950s as a Wild West movie set and is still used for filming today.

Catalina Island

Catalina Island, one of California’s Channel Islands, is so well set up for families that it’s earned itself the nickname Kidalina. Fun things to do there include relaxing at the beach, spotting bison and taking a boat ride. Plus there are loads of adventure activities, like parasailing, an aerial adventure, mini golfing, giant ziplines and arcades. It couldn’t be better set up for families. You get there by ferry from San Pedro, Long Beach, Dana Point or Newport Beach.

Knotts Berry Farm

Knotts Berry Farm is known as California’s original theme park. There are four themed areas: Ghost Town, Fiesta Village, The Boardwalk and Camp Snoopy. There’s plenty for older kids looking for an adrenaline hit, and Camp Snoopy is ideal for younger kids with tamer rides for littluns plus meet-and-greets with the Peanuts characters.

Redwood Sky Walk

Redwood Sky Walk, Eureka

In Eureka at Sequoia Park Zoo, you can do a treetop walk through the redwoods! The Redwood Sky Walk is a self-guided walk 100ft above the ground, which means you can walk among the tree canopy. Part of it is along wooden, fully accessible, walkways, and then there’s also the ‘adventure leg’ that takes you across wobbly, suspended bridges with wire mesh on either side – it’s safe but still not for the feint of heart! Our boys loved it.

Ride a cable car

Photo by San Francisco Travel Association

San Francisco’s iconic cable cars are a big hit with kids. They get super crowded, but are worth the squeeze for the fun of riding up and down the city’s giants hills. Plus they’re a good way to get from A to B (there are three lines, two of which go to Fisherman’s Wharf).

You could also go to the Cable Car Museum on Nob Hill, which has a collection of historic cable cars and is a fun thing for kids to do in San Francisco

And, on the subject of impressive streets, also visit Lombard Street, San Francisco’s famous zig-zag road.

Go to a classic diner

An American diner tends to be a big win with kids – pancakes, ice cream sundaes, milkshakes – they are treat heaven! You’ll find them all over the place, but some of the ones we loved include Gott’s Roadside (we went to branches in SF and Sonoma), Penny’s Diner in Dunsmuir (in an old tin cabin looking out onto the mountains) and Russell’s in Pasadena (classic old-school diner).

Do a honey tasting

Hive tasting room, Woodland, CA

The honey tasting at The HIVE is is one of the things Otis talks about most when we mention California! It’s in part because he’s a big Winnie the Pooh fan, so he was excited by the honey aspect, but it’s also simply a great experience.

The stylish tasting room in Woodland has over 30 honeys from all over the world, and they also do mead tasting, and serve food, including a mead fondue!

There’s an outdoor courtyard for whiling away some time and you can also explore the pollinator gardens and learn about the production of honey. The Yolo region is filled with fun farm and tasting experiences – see our guide to the best of Yolo County.

Pick-your-own bouquet experience

Pick your own bouquet at Park Winters

Another unique thing to do in Yolo County is a pick-your-own bouquet experience at The Farm at Park Winters, part of the Park Winters country estate.

Run by the fabulous flower farmer Rafael Galiano, this is a gorgeous way to spend an hour or so, picking your blooms and arranging them into the perfect bouquet. Our kids loved it as much as us and spent ages trying to find their favourite flowers.

The flower garden itself is gorgeous, backed by the peaks of the Capay Valley and with a lavender edged path leading to its entrance. And there’s an impressive rustic barn, filled with dried flowers, space for floral arranging and an assortment of locally produced oils and cosmetics for sale. Again, the kids loved exploring the barn.

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Our California travel guides

We also have detailed guides to loads of California destinations that can help you plan even more. They’ll especially suit you if you’re a bit like us, keen on discovering the creative side of a destination and in pursuit of all the best cafes, ice creams, doughnuts, bookshops, murals and beauty spots. And we have lots of family guides if you’re travelling with kids.

Road trips: California Road Trip | Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip | San Francisco to Seattle road trip | San Francisco to Seattle road trip

Handpicked travel guides: Laguna Beach | Mendocino |San ClementeSan Diego  | Santa Barbara  | Santa Cruz|Shasta Cascade and Redding Sonoma |Tuolumne County Yolo County

California family travel guides: California with kidsLos Angeles with kids | Sacramento with kidsSan Diego with kids | San Francisco with kids

California accommodation guides: Joshua Tree Airbnb | Laguna Beach Airbnb | Hip Palm Springs Hotels | Palm Springs Airbnb | Palm Springs VRBO | San Diego Airbnb | Santa Cruz Airbnb | Santa Barbara Airbnb |Santa Monica Airbnb | Sonoma Airbnb | Venice Beach AirbnbHip San Francisco Hotels

California attraction guides: How to get the most out of Disneyland with toddlers | The ultimate guide to Universal Studios with babies and toddlers

If you’re heading elsewhere in the USA or even worldwide, see more of our family travel tips here.

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